Modern Trends

If humanistic psychology was a third force in the 1960s, then today there are fourth and fifth forces: cognition and neuroscience. Cognition emphasizes information processing within humans, while neuroscience emphasizes the biology of the brain and nervous system.

What is evidence that cognitive psychology is gaining influence?

Cognitive psychology has roots going back to the mid-1800s but re-emerged as an important part of psychology in the 1960s and early 1970s. In their analysis of trends in psychology, Robins, Gosling, and Craik (1999) found that over the past few decades "cognitive psychology has sustained a steady upward trajectory" of influence.

Robins, Gosling, and Craik used various measures. One was the number of published research studies in various areas of psychology. In cognitive psychology, the numbers were going up quickly. Another important statistic was the number of citations of those studies (i.e. references to them in other publications) by scientists and news writers outside the discipline of cognitive psychology. That number was also high, showing that people outside the specialty were interested in cognitive psychology research.

Another measure of a subdiscipline's vigor is the number of want ads for new PhD psychologists. Do universities want to hire people in that research area? For cognitive psychology, the answer is Yes. In the back pages of the APA Monitor, a place where many colleges and universities advertise, ads for cognitive psychologists are relatively common, and that has been true for years.

What stimulated the comeback of cognitive psychology?

The most important stimulus to the comeback of cognitive psychology was the advent of the computer. Computers made it obvious that scientists could analyze mental processes without resorting to mystical speculations. Previously, during the peak of behaviorism in the mid-20th Century, the mind had often been called a "black box" that was impenetrable, because its processes could not be observed or analyzed. Computers introduced a new way to analyze mental processes, by treating them as flows of information to accomplish a task, much as occurs in a computer.

To what does the phrase "cognitive science" refer?

Chapter 7 (Cognition) discusses the information processing approach as well as AI (artificial intelligence), an offshoot of computer science. The term cognitive science is now used to refer to any form of research that involves scientific explanations of intelligent behavior, including the fields of linguistics, artificial intelligence, portions of philosophy, portions of educational psychology, and cognitive psychology.

Cognitive science overcame the objections of behaviorists, who said mental processes could not be studied scientifically. In certain areas of research, such as the study of memory (Chapter 6), the cognitive or information processing perspective led to burst of new and interesting research. By the early 1970s many psychologists were talking about a "cognitive revolution."

Why did talk of a "cognitive revolution" irritate behaviorists?

Such talk was irritating to some behaviorists. The term "revolution" as used by Thomas Kuhn in his classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) seemed exaggerated and a bit hostile when applied to the situation in psychology. It implied that the old monarch behaviorism was about to be overthrown and replaced, the way geocentric (earth-centered) models of the solar system were replaced by Galileo's sun-centered view of the solar system, an example Kuhn used. In psychology, no revolution of that sort occurred. Behaviorism never went away. Behavioral techniques remain very useful to this day, and we will discuss many of them in Chapter 5 (Conditioning).

Cognitive psychology did take over as the dominant point of view in experimental psychology, a term that covers non-clinical laboratory research in psychology. In animal research, behavioral techniques remain essential to this day. In therapy, the walls between behavioral and cognitive perspectives came down when behavioral psychologists started treating inner speech as a behavior that could be modified. A 2007 survey showed that over 90% of therapists in the U.S. use a type of therapy called "cognitive behavioral therapy" with some of their clients. That would have seemed astonishing in the 1960s or earlier, when cognition and behaviorism were assumed to be opposites. We discuss cognitive behavior therapy in chapter 13 (Therapies).


What approach became more dominant in the 1980s? How is brain imaging playing an important role in today's psychology?

If the 1970s was the decade in which cognitive approaches started their big comeback in psychology, then the 1980s was the decade when the neuroscientific approaches suddenly became more important. A hot research area in neuroscience is brain imaging. As we will see in Chapter 2 (p.72), neuroscientists employ a variety of scanning techniques that reveal brain structures and activity. Such research played an important role in the return of mind and consciousness as topics of study in psychology (Posner, 1993). They are shedding light on topics such as the nature of human emotional responses (Ruksznis, 1999).

In fact, any psychological process that people can do inside a brain imaging machine—solving a problem, translating a language, recognizing a face, listening to music, telling or listening to a joke, doing arithmetic, praying, imagining a visual scene—can be correlated with activity in specialized areas of the brain. One consistent finding is that imagining something (such as music) produces much the same large-scale brain pattern as actually perceiving it or doing it. Such a strong correlation between subjective experience and objective, observable data makes it clear that the patterns of brain activity see in brain scans are meaningful. Brain imaging does indeed give us a window on mental activity, to some degree.

The future

What are some "integrative trends" in today's psychology?

In the future, it is safe to say, there will be greater specialization in psychology, as an "inevitable consequence of increasing specialization of knowledge" (Bower, 1993). However, specialization need not imply fragmentation. At the same time specialties are becoming narrower, one can perceive clear integrative trends in psychology. Fields such as psychoneuroimmunology and cognitive neuroscience are explicitly integrative, cutting across the old boundaries between different specialties. Evolutionary psychology is "hot" in the 2000s and provides an integrative framework for psychology as well as all the other natural sciences.

Chapter 14 (Frontiers of Psychology) is all about cross-disciplinary approaches: Psychology and Medicine, Psychology and Law, and Sport Psychology.

What "seems to be fading away"?

What seems to be fading away in modern psychology is the conflict between biological, behavioral, humanistic and cognitive approaches. Unlike their predecessors, many young psychologists do not feel compelled to take sides or choose between different approaches to psychology. Researchers of today typically focus on problems or particular topics rather than philosophies. They feel free to use any perspective that sheds light on the issue they investigate. Typically they value a variety of approaches to psychology and feel free to combine them.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey